CBD vs THC: The Complete Guide to Cannabis

CBD vs THC: The Complete Guide to Cannabis

It’s time to take a deeper look at hemp, CBD, and THC to better understand what they are, what they do, and the history behind them.

If you’ve spent any time researching hemp, CBD, or THC on the internet, you’ve come across plenty of articles pitting these three concepts against each other. Most of them have titles like “CBD vs THC: Which is Better?” or “Hemp vs CBD: What the Farmers Won’t Tell You,” but they never seem to have the information you want to know.


Speaking about CBD, THC, and its effects can often become confusing to understand. Both of them come from the same plant, but will they both make you high? Is there any difference between CBD and THC? Are there any real benefits of CBD vs THC?


With this article, you’ll gain insight regarding


  • The difference between CBD vs THC
  • What is cannabis
  • What is THC
  • What is CBD
  • The chemical structures of CBD and THC
  • Common questions about CBD and THC


Once you learn more about these cannabis-based compounds, it will be much easier for you to ask further questions, seek out the products you want, and be completely satisfied with your decision.

 Cannabis farm with growing cannabis plants down alley


What is the Difference Between CBD vs THC?

The primary difference between THC and CBD is how they affect the body. Generally, CBD won’t get you high, while THC most likely will.


CBD doesn’t effectively attach to our cannabinoid receptors that regulate functions such as appetite, sleep, and our immune system. These connectors are called cannabinoid receptors 1 (CB1), making up part of our endocannabinoid system (ECS).


THC connects well with CB1 receptors and initiates psychological reactions because the receptors are part of the central nervous system, including the brain and spinal cord. So, when CB1 receptors become activated by THC, it creates a psychoactive response.


Typically, CBD doesn’t activate CB1 receptors; therefore, it doesn’t alter perception or sensory functions. However, general research suggests that if CBD and THC are taken together, the CBD can reduce THC’s psychoactive effects by weakening the bind with CB1 receptors – lowering the risk of becoming too intoxicated or high.


Cannabis plants contain THC and CBD; however, CBD is more plentiful in hemp, while THC is most abundant in other types of cannabis. CBD comprises the majority of hemp plants, and legally, cannabis can only classify as hemp if its THC content doesn’t exceed 0.3 percent.


So, there are a few general differences between CBD and THC:


  • CBD won’t get you high; THC will get you high
  • THC connects to CB1 receptors, CBD cannot
  • CBD is mostly in hemp, while THC is higher in other cannabis plants


When growing other types of cannabis, farmers cultivate the plants to produce more THC than any other cannabinoid, creating a more potent psychoactive effect.


What is Cannabis?

Cannabis comes from the family, Cannabaceae. It’s a flowering plant with three main species – Cannabis indica, Cannabis ruderalis, and Cannabis sativa.


Both hemp and marijuana are Cannabis sativa plants; however, hemp’s classification only contains 0.2 to 0.3 percent THC under federal law. Any cannabis plant with high amounts of THC, or at least more than 0.3 percent, classifies as marijuana.


Hemp plants grow about four meters or more and have thin, long leaves. In contrast, marijuana plants are typically only two meters tall with wide, short leaves. Hemp has higher amounts of CBD that’s useful legal CBD products, while marijuana contains more THC for medical and recreational purposes.


The term “marijuana” was first used in the 1900s as cannabis’ infamy grew; it’s still commonly used today even with its controversial meanings. Hemp is also known as industrial hemp and has many different uses from paper to rope, textile, and clothing.


Hemp and marijuana both come from Cannabis sativa; however,


  • Hemp doesn’t contain over 0.3 percent THC, but marijuana has large THC content
  • Hemp has several different uses, while marijuana is mainly for medical and recreational use
  • Hemp plants usually grow tall, and marijuana cannabis is typically short with wide leaves


So far, we’ve covered the different effects of CBD and THC, and we’ve explained that CBD comes primarily from hemp, while THC is more dominant in marijuana. But what are CBD and THC exactly?


The molecular structure of THC is shown over a dark green field of cannabis

What is THC?

THC is the psychoactive or intoxicating compound found in cannabis. The commonly reported effects include heightened senses, a distorted perception of time, decreased motor skills, dry mouth, red eyes, paranoia, and fatigue.


There are many different variants of this compound, but the most common type is Delta-9 THC. Delta-9 THC is converted from natural THC when introduced to heat (via smoking or vaping), allowing it to bind to receptors in your endocannabinoid system.


Edibles, on the other hand, produce 11-hydroxy-THC, which is much stronger and lasts much longer than Delta-9. This is why many THC users report feeling much “higher,” often to an uncomfortable degree, when using edibles.


Medical uses for THC are still being tested and proven, but anecdotally, THC is used to increase appetite, manage sleep issues, handle acute anxiety, and reduce inflammation.


When compared to CBD,


  • THC is the psychoactive cannabinoid
  • Delta-9 THC is the most common type created from heat
  • THC has various medical uses, theoretically


The molecular structure of cbd is show over a field of light green hemp

What is CBD?

CBD is another compound that’s also found in cannabis, but unlike its cousin THC, CBD will not get you high. There is evidence suggesting that it can counteract the effects of THC, meaning that CBD could potentially be used to save those overeating edibles from their uncomfortable high.


But just because it won’t get you high doesn’t mean scientists aren’t rapidly unlocking its full potential. As with THC, science and testing are quickly working to validate the benefits of CBD; however, many people are already using products made with CBD for everyday stress, exercise recovery, and overall wellness.


CBD has its own set of unique characteristics,


  • CBD isn’t psychoactive; it cannot get you high
  • CBD may be able to counteract the adverse effects of THC
  • CBD has the potential of being useful for health and wellness


CBD and THC are only two of the 100-plus compounds inside cannabis. They seem to have an identical molecular structure; however, a slight difference in their chemical arrangement causes THC and CBD to have different effects.


How Do the Chemical Structures of CBD and THC Differ?

CBD and THC are natural chemical elements found in cannabis, consisting of around 113 bi- and tri-cyclic compounds. They share the same molecular formula composed of 21 carbon atoms, 30 hydrogens, and two oxygens (C21H30O2).


And their molecular mass is nearly identical, with CBD having a mass of 314.464 grams per mole (g/mol) and THC 314.469 g/mol. By sharing the same chemical composition but having different atomic arrangements, CBD and THC are general examples of structural isomers.


The biological fusion of CBD and THC in cannabis also follows the same conversions. Both start as cannabigerolic acid (CBGA), which is the starting point of each natural phytocannabinoid. CBGA begins to cyclize into tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA) and cannabidiolic acid (CBDA) through their respective synthases.


CBD and THC are cyclic compounds because they contain one or more series of atoms connected to form a ring. Their final chemical forms develop through decarboxylation of their acidic structure; however, there is a significant structural difference between them.


A THC molecule has a closed, cyclic ring within an ester group. In contrast, CBD has an open ring with an alkene and hydroxyl group. It’s this small change in molecular structure that allows CBD and THC to have unique physiological properties.


What Are the Chemical Properties of CBD and THC?

Like many cannabinoids, CBD and THC aren’t particularly soluble in water; however, they have good solubility in organic solvents, such as alcohols and lipids. THC and CBD are inside cannabis as a mixture of acidic forms and are ready for decarboxylation and chemical alteration when heated.


THC molecules can also bind well to glass and plastics, which is why THC is usually prepared and stored in raw or organic solvents along with glassware to minimize the loss of valuable potency.


THC works as a potent partial agonist of CB1 – a cannabinoid receptor found primarily in the central nervous system with a high amount located in the brain. It stimulates the CB1 receptor, which leads to the intoxicating effects associated with marijuana cannabis.


On the other hand, CBD classifies as a negative allosteric modulator when it pertains to CB1 receptors, meaning that it can change the connector’s shape. With this alteration, it makes THC and other endogenous CB1 activators challenging to stimulate the receptor.


CBD also doesn’t stimulate or bind to CB1 receptors, so it doesn’t cause any of the psychotropic effects commonly known with THC.


How Do CBD and THC Molecules Affect Each Other?

CBD seems to modulate or restrain the intoxicating effects of THC by prohibiting its compatibility with stimulating the receptor, which is the primary reason people don’t get “high” or feel euphoria when consuming CBD-rich products in contrast to those derived from THC.


In some cases, CBD has shown a reduction in the temporarily adverse effects of THC, such as paranoia and short-term memory impairment. And some evidence implies that CBD combined with a little THC could also be beneficial without any harmful or euphoric effect.


Even with evidence suggesting positive interactions between the two cannabinoids, there is still significant resistance to combining the two, mainly because of the traditional health industry’s consensus and the various hemp and cannabis laws that still divide the country.


However, the concept of “whole plant usage” is slowly gaining popularity and more supporters. It’s an idea that cannabis is best used in its most natural form, allowing several different cannabinoids and other active elements in cannabis to display combined effects – also referred to as the entourage effect.


When comparing the molecule builds of CBD vs THC,


  • CBD molecules have an open cyclic ring with an alkene/hydroxyl group, while THC has an ester group with a closed ring
  • THC binds well with CB1 receptors, but CBD cannot
  • CBD may lower the adverse effects of THC
  • CBD and THC may work better together with other cannabinoids to offer “whole-plant usage”


Now that we’ve covered the differences, effects, and chemical properties of THC vs CBD, we can construct and answer questions with clear and precise responses that won’t confuse CBD and THC because of surface-level similarities.

A brown glass bottle of cbd oil sits among hemp leaves with a drop of cbd oil dripping from a dropper above it

Frequently Asked Questions About CBD and THC


Does CBD Oil Have THC?

This is one of the most common questions people ask when learning about CBD oil, and the answer is a little trickier than a simple “yes” or “no.” While industrial hemp, and therefore CBD, are legally not allowed to contain enough THC to get you high, that doesn’t mean that all CBD is entirely THC-free.


Some CBD oil products contain all of the natural cannabinoids in the hemp plant, including THC, and because they hold the “full spectrum” of cannabinoids, they are referred to as “full spectrum” products.


On the other hand, other companies produce products labeled “broad spectrum” that are said to host all cannabinoids except for THC. However, because there is no exact standard for “broad spectrum” products, there is no way to tell which cannabinoids are available in a product without looking up lab results.


But for those looking for CBD and nothing else, CBD isolate offers a pure CBD experience, free of all other cannabinoids. However, that also means missing out on what those other cannabinoids have to offer.


And while none of these options will get you high, if you’re worried about drug testing, you’re probably better off being safe than sorry.


Can CBD Have THC In It?

By itself, CBD cannot have THC within it because they are two separate compounds. However, as we mentioned before, hemp-based CBD products may still contain a small percentage of THC, depending on whether it’s a full spectrum product or broad spectrum. The amount of THC in full spectrum CBD oil is still within legal limits – probably no more than 0.2 percent. But the main differences rely on how CBD and THC affect the endocannabinoid system.


Can CBD Be Psychoactive or Intoxicating?

CBD cannot be psychoactive or become intoxicating because of its molecular structure; its atoms won’t allow CBD to fully bind with the cannabinoid receptors connected to the central nervous system. Even though CBD and THC’s chemical structures seem identical, CBD’s open cyclic ring lowers its binding ability, leading to mild stimulating responses. And THC’s closed ring allows it to connect fully with CB1 receptors and alter their functions.


Do all CBD Products do the Same Thing?

In short, no.


There are almost countless numbers of new CBD products these days. From cotton candy to shampoo to bath bombs, it can be hard to find something that CBD isn’t in. However, many people still want to know if these wacky, new ways of taking CBD are actually any different from just taking a CBD oil capsule. So let’s break it down.


Despite all the flashy presentations, CBD can only be taken in three different ways: an ingestible, sublingual tincture, or topical. Every weird CBD product you’ve ever seen will fit into one of these three categories. But how does each group work?



Ingestibles, or edibles, are perhaps the easiest way to take full advantage of all that CBD has to offer. They can come in the form of traditional capsules, CBD gummies, or even things like cotton candy – but they all work the same way.

Each edible product will contain a certain amount of CBD per serving, which allows you to know precisely how much CBD you are taking every time. After swallowing, the CBD makes its way to your stomach, where it is digested and absorbed into the bloodstream.

Edible products are typically pre-measured and easy to take on the go, making them popular with most people who want to travel with CBD oil. Carrying edibles allows you to get the perfect amount of CBD you need without slowing down your day.

Sublingual Tincture

Tinctures are very simple and efficient.

They’re usually a mixture of CBD and a carrier oil (like MCT oil) taken directly with a dropper or mixed into food.

To take a CBD oil tincture, just place a full dropper of CBD oil under your tongue, hold it there for 30 to 60 seconds, and swallow. Another option is to add a drop or two of your favorite CBD oil tincture to your coffee, smoothie, or nearly any dish.

When taken sublingually, tinctures provide a quicker delivery method compared to edibles since the CBD can begin to interact with the body after 30 minutes. When consumed with food or drink, they take the same amount of time as edibles.


Unlike edibles, topical products are not meant to enter your bloodstream. Instead, they work at a surface level to assist with exercise recovery or enhance skincare products. Many CBD topical products combine CBD with pain-relieving compounds like menthol and lidocaine. In these formulas, CBD provides support for the endocannabinoid system while other compounds temporarily reduce soreness.

By taking advantage of multiple support methods, everyone from athletes to accountants to stay-at-home parents can use these products to get through a tough day.


Can CBD and THC Work Better Together?

In the late 1990s, scientists Raphael Mechoulam and Shimon Ben-Shabat first discovered an increase in cannabinoid activity when a wide range of cannabinoids are in the body at one time. This effect, called the entourage effect, often referred to as whole-body or whole-plant benefits occurs when many cannabinoids work synergistically to boost their impacts. Our Superior Broad Spectrum formula is THC-free* but contains more cannabinoids than just CBD to take advantage of this effect.


Can CBD Affect THC?

General research suggests that CBD has the potential of lowering THC’s psychoactive effects. It builds upon the concept of the entourage effect regulating the impact of every cannabinoid, creating a balance. However, it may also indicate that CBD works alongside other cannabinoids to mitigate THC’s effects.


Is CBD Federally Legal?

One of the most common questions we get asked at cbdMD is, “In what states is CBD oil legal?” And while the answer is undoubtedly less tricky than learning the difference between “full spectrum” and “broad spectrum,” it definitely requires a little explanation.


When it comes to CBD oil's legal status, just like judging the legal status of hemp, it all comes down to THC content. While the 2018 Farm Bill federally legalized hemp and hemp-based products, not all CBD oils are made from federally legal hemp.


Thirty-three states have already begun or are creating medical marijuana programs, which means that in those 33 states, there may be “CBD oil” that contains more than the federally sanctioned amount of THC. In the case of these oils, they are only legal in the state they were purchased in, and taking them across state lines would technically be a federal offense.


On the other hand, CBD products made with industrial hemp containing less than 0.3 percent THC are federally legal. That means it’s ok to order these products online without fear of breaking the law, and the TSA has even approved these types of CBD products to take onto airplanes so that you can travel all over.


Does Marijuana Cannabis Contain CBD?

Marijuana cannabis has both CBD and THC; however, it contains higher amounts of THC and lower CBD content. Different cannabis species have different compositions with varying cannabinoid levels – all leading to various effects. Cannabis can have over 100 unique cannabinoid variations, including CBD, CBG, CBN, and more.


What Do You Think About CBD vs THC?

We covered a great deal of information:


  • The main differences between CBD and THC
  • Hemp and marijuana cannabis
  • Descriptions of THC and CBD
  • Chemical properties when comparing CBD vs THC
  • Questions commonly asked about CBD and THC


And while it would take forever to tell you literally everything there is to know about these three topics, this is a great place to start. Education has no exact finish line, so keep reading, asking questions, and searching for exactly what you need to make the most informed decisions possible.


Check out our blog for more exciting topics and information on CBD vs THC and more. Make sure to connect with us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to continue your “hempucation” and join our community of helpful hemp lovers!

Devon Firestone strongly contributed to this article.

Original author: Tayler Newman